TRANSLATIONS by Brian Friel, directed by Ben Barnes, with Oliver Becker, Oliver Dennis, Patricia Fagan, Jennifer Gould, Diego Matamoros, Gordon Rand, Liisa Repo-Martell, Philip Riccio, Michael Simpson and David Storch. Presented by Soulpepper at the Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). Previews tonight (Thursday, July 15), opens July 16 and runs to August 14, various Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday (August) and Saturday (July) 2 pm. $30-$49, stu $25, some rush. 416-973-4000. www.soulpepper.ca Rating: NNNNN
Gordon Rand's been elasticizing his theatre muscles this month, skipping back and forth between contemporary dinner-party bitchiness and period Irish romanticism. At the beginning of July, the writer/director's new work, Pond Life, proved to be one of the hits at the Fringe. Now Rand's ready to don his actor's hat and journey to 1833 rural Ireland for Soulpepper's staging of Brian Friel's moving Translations.
Translations takes place in an Irish hedge school, an institution banned by the English until just before the time of the play. Often hidden behind a hedgerow, a schoolmaster taught Greek and Latin and Irish language and culture to his pupils in defiance of the Protestant authorities.
Rand plays Manus, the lame elder son of schoolmaster Hugh. Manus has become what we would call an accommodator. His father's assistant in all matters, he's shy about valuing himself in any way.
"Manus is a traditionalist, which turns out to be his downfall. Unlike his younger brother, Owen, he can't adapt to change," says Rand, whose work includes seven seasons at the Shaw Festival as well as indie productions like Ryan McVittie's The Contract and his own Orgy In The Lighthouse, works that push the theatrical envelope.
The change he refers to comes in the persons of a British military unit of surveyors who've come to anglicize the Gaelic place names, destroying centuries of tradition and setting several tragedies in motion.
"Friel makes the point that Manus isn't given much of the credit for the work he does. Because of his own disability, he sees the problems others have and works to overcome them, especially in his gentleness as a teacher. That means he's not as ruthless as Owen but also has more trouble surviving."
One of the key themes in Translations is the importance of language. As in the Garden of Eden, where Adam named all things and thus had power over them, the British renaming of Irish locations ensures that those places are theirs.
"The attempt to eradicate an existing language seems typical of all colonized places," sighs Rand. "Think of the schools in Canada where native children were required to speak English rather than their own language. It's a devastating universal theme."
The play's conceit is that the Irish mostly speak Gaelic - though we hear English - while the English use their own language; neither can understand the other unless an Irish character makes a point of switching to the soldiers' tongue. In the work's most memorable scene, an Irish woman and a British soldier woo each other with the passionate sounds of the old place names.
Romance couldn't be farther away in Rand's Pond Life, in which two couples at a not-so-staid dinner party go at each other and the social niceties they live with. The show deserves to live beyond the Fringe.
"Their speech is the opposite of that of characters in the Friel play," smiles Rand.
"Friel's people speak lyrically, while the figures in Pond Life talk in nervous non-sequiturs, with awkward moments hanging in the air. That's the source of the play's humour, since no one knows how to say something nor quite whom they're speaking to."
The result is a dark, fast-moving farce where events feel out of control. The dialogue speeds along, yet plot points emerge slowly, so that viewers aren't sure what's coming next. And he'll admit, when I ask, that his four characters aren't people we'd want to dine with.
"I love being nasty in my writing. Apart from its being a personal vent, you can say through characters what you'd like to say but either can't or won't.
"And then you can provide the perfect comeback in the next line."
Rand likes to work with stories that debate moral conundrums, situations that are hard to deal with because there are no easy answers. He says there's value in trying to bring out feelings in an audience that they might not want to feel.
"I guess I'm attracted to ideas and stories that might get me punched in the mouth."